A Look At Donnybrook Fair

Pg 18 Donnybrook fair circa 1835

Today, when one goes about their business while walking down Morehampton Road the person in question will often notice the Donnybrook Fair family-run gourmet food company owned by John Doyle. But there are those among us who do not understand the historical significance of the company’s name, and the impact it has had on the Dublin 4 district.

The story started in 1204, when King John granted a licence via royal charter to the Corporation of Dublin. This licence was issued for the holding of an annual eight-day fair to be held in the Village of Donnybrook.

Initially, the Fair began as an important livestock and produce market, but gradually evolved into an event more in line with a traditional carnival with a funfair style atmosphere. The Fair was eventually extended to 15 days under Henry the Third with its original opening day being May 3rd, although this went through alterations before the date of August 26th was finally settled upon.

Tolls and taxes for Donnybrook Fair were originally ensured in the Corporation of Dublin. However, the 1690s saw the right to the revenues transferred to the Ussher family, natives of Donnybrook, who held this responsibility until 1812, when the reins were passed on to the Madden family.

During the Middle Ages, the fair was never seen as a significant event, since it took place outside the protection of the city walls, with many too afraid to venture outside for fear of being attacked by outlaws.

Over the centuries, the fair became synonymous with drunkenness and disorder, with nights often descending into external orgies of violence. The Fair Green, currently the site of Bective Rangers Rugby Club, was one of the numerous establishments that sold alcohol, along with others that also sold such market staples as salt beef, potatoes, cabbage and other essentials. The fair was awash with merchants and buyers, with horse dealers, boxing and wrestling exhibitions and other entertainment outlets.

The source of the alcohol-fuelled violence generally started after dark, where the very loud music would often result in people brawling and fighting. Carolyn A Conley’s book Melancholy Accidents: The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland attempts to capture the atmosphere when she quotes the contemporary judges of the time, “the old times of the Donnybrook Fair, where everyone was bound to strike at the heads of everyone else he met with.”

The 19th century saw the creation of a Committee for the Abolition of the Donnybrook Fair. The committee was led by Father PJ Nowlan and was put in place as a response to the drunken ill-behaviour of the fair. After a very strong publicity campaign against the fair, the licence was sold back to the Corporation of Dublin for £3,000 by the then-holders, the Madden family.

For anyone who wishes to learn more about the history of Donnybrook Fair or other past events in the area, visit bdshistory.org, website of the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Sandymount Historical Society.

By Craig Kinsella